After months of declining coronavirus cases, Oklahoma is seeing a small, early summer spike as public health officials want more labs and hospitals to send samples to test for virus variants.
The seven-day average of new cases rose to 190 on Thursday after dipping below 100 earlier this month. Several hotspots of active cases have popped up this week in Fort Sill, Miami and Ardmore.
The case increases, while modest compared to the worst months of the pandemic, come as state public health officials sent out an alert wanting more cooperation from testing sites. Vaccinations have also slowed after early successes in Oklahoma.
“As COVID-19 evolves and new variants of the virus continue to emerge it is important the Oklahoma State Department of Health Public Health Laboratory receive COVID-19 specimens to identify variant trends and implement mitigation measures to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma,” said the health alert, which was sent Tuesday.
Oklahoma has been lagging in coronavirus variant testing compared to other states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks the state last for variant testing as a share of total cases. The CDC doesn’t rank Oklahoma for types of variants because the state doesn’t submit enough sample results.
The state’s latest epidemiology report shows 430 out of 755 virus strains tested so far this year were classified as “variants of concern.” Most of those were the U.K. variant, which has now been renamed the alpha variant. Almost 10% of the strains of concern in Oklahoma have been the delta variant, which is among the fastest spreading of the latest virus variants. The delta variant made up almost 30% of the variants of concern in neighboring Missouri in the past month.
State Epidemiologist Joli Stone said it was never required for hospitals or private testing labs to submit samples to Oklahoma’s public health lab for variant testing, although they are still required to report positive test results.
All of the approved vaccines for COVID-19 have been shown to be effective against even the most infectious variants. But pockets of Oklahoma have lower vaccination rates, including many rural counties on the eastern border with Arkansas and Missouri. Statewide, about 45% of Oklahomans older than 12 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Active cases on upswing
Meanwhile, daily active coronavirus cases rose steadily in the past week, hitting 1,572 on Thursday. Active cases peaked at more than 43,000 in January but fell dramatically in the following months. The number was below 1,000 earlier this month.
An Oklahoma Watch analysis of active cases by ZIP code showed hotspots this week in Fort Sill and Miami, as well as Ardmore and Durant.
Active cases rose by 89 in Fort Sill in the past week, bringing the total active cases there to 178 this week. In a statement, Stone said the spike at Fort Sill is limited to the post and has been traced to basic training groups. Army officials have said the infected soldiers are confined and isolated and not exposing others on the post or in the community.
“We have offered second specimen collection by the (Comanche County Health Department) for sequencing,” Stone said. “They are collecting through their own Department of Defense lab for variant sequencing and will contact us if anything is abnormal.”
Active cases almost doubled in the Miami area in the past week to 73, according to the analysis. Stone said the state is reviewing several clusters in that northeastern area of the state.
“We have several COVID-19 specimens pending from cases associated with those clusters to determine what strains are circulating in that area,” Stone said.
Apart from variant testing, the percent of positive coronavirus tests has been under 5% for most of June, according to the latest epidemiology report. That positivity rate peaked at 37% in early January. Recent testing volume is averaging about 2,000 tests per day, down from about 12,000 tests a day in January.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies.